Culling our cows isn’t the only way to reduce emissions – but greenies shy from the GE option

Climate  change  warriors  who   are  demanding  NZ’s  dairy  herd   be culled  immediately to  meet  targets of  lower methane emissions  may be confounded by the evidence  that leading farmers  are  already succeeding  in  lowering gas emissions.  And the  prospects  of  huge  advances  in other  aspects  of  dairying,  particularly  in   AI, robotics  and  the development of  new crops,  portend further  gains..

And what’s holding  up another  key development?

It’s the intransigence of the so-called  Green lobby against the introduction of genetic technology.

In a Ministry for the Environment briefing to Environment Minister David Parker in June 2018, officials warned NZ could fall behind the rest of the world in genetic engineering technologies.  They said the rapid pace of technological change is forcing countries to clarify their positions, and recommended the government update the law.

The Labour element of the government coalition  has done little  so  far  to bring  NZ into  line  with what   other countries   are doing on gene editing — but it has  recognised  the importance  of  funding  innovation   and sustainability of  the farming  industry.

More than $25m  is to  go towards innovation and sustainability in NZ’s dairy industry.

A $25.68m programme, officially launched at the National Fieldays by Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, will drive improvements in the health and wellbeing of the national dairy herd and a step-change in sustainable milk production.

Critics  say this is  too little and  too  slow but it does build  on  work  already being pioneered  by  DairyNZ.

The seven-year programme, called Resilient Dairy: Innovative Breeding for a Sustainable Future, is being led by farmer-owned herd improvement co-operative Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC), with investment and support from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and DairyNZ.

They say it will invest in new disease management technologies and advancements in genomic science to improve cow productivity, and produce better cows with improved health, wellbeing and environmental resilience.

Over the life of the programme, LIC is investing $11.2m, MPI $10.3m and DairyNZ $4.2m.

MPI is investing in this new programme  because  it  says it aims to deliver long-term gains in a number of areas, including sustainable production, milk quality, and animal wellbeing, while importantly reducing impacts on the environment.

LIC, the largest supplier of artificial breeding services to NZ’s dairy farms, says it will leverage its existing capabilities in genomic science and diagnostics to develop innovative breeding tools and tests that support more sustainable milk production.

Investment from DairyNZ will go into re-building its national evaluation system for dairy cattle to incorporate genomic information to facilitate faster rates of genetic gain.

“Resilient Dairy is our opportunity to get back in front of the world with genetic gain,” says Bruce Thorrold, DairyNZ’s strategic investment leader.

“With new discoveries in genomic methods and data collection we are now in the position to jump ahead and incorporate genomic data into our animal evaluation system – enabling the whole sector to maximise genetic gain,”.

Other authorities believe faster  progress  could  be   made  if  NZ  was  conducting  its  own   genetic  engineering  research.

In  spite  of   the   government dragging its  feet  on  GE,  at  the  same time as it brings in  new   rules  on  agricultural emissions, requiring farmers to reduce methane losses from livestock by 10% by 2030 and 24-47% by 2050,)  latest trial work across a range of NZ dairy farms is showing that reductions in green-house gas emissions are  possible using existing practices, making the initial 10% drop less daunting than many farmers may have realised.

A dozen demonstration dairy farms operating across NZ through DairyNZ’s Partnership Farm Project underline how farmers can lower gas emissions, but also achieving gains in productivity and profitability along the way.

The first farm to open its gate on how well it has done over the past two-year trial period was Owl Farm, owned by St Peters School near Cambridge.

At the farm’s open day farmers learnt how management working alongside DairyNZ staff had managed to slice almost 13% off the farm’s gas emissions while also increasing farm operating profit per hectare by 14%.

The reductions were achieved through a number of relatively straightforward moves that included cutting stocking rates back by 5%, dropping nitrogen fertiliser use by 13kg a hectare and slicing bought in feed from 20% of total feed down to 11%.

In addition to reducing gas losses, the farm also managed to lower its nutrient losses into waterways, slicing 14% off nitrogen losses.

Overall the farm managed to achieve a reduction of 1t of gas per hectare.

Its profile as a relatively typical “average” Waikato farm provides a positive example of what could be achieved by many other farms running similar grass-based systems.

DairyNZ chief executive Dr Tim Mackle says  NZ is already one of the lowest emissions producers of dairy products in the world per kg of milk solids, and wants to build on that advantage.

“The 2030 reduction target is the first step, which we know will be very challenging. But there is action farmers can take, and are already taking to reduce on farm emissions through farm systems changes and new technologies.

The development of that new technology is being headed up by the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, close to reaching its 10th anniversary after being opened by  then Prime Minister John Key.  The centre has proven invaluable in giving NZ farmers a head start in the race to develop technologies that will help mitigate methane losses from livestock in a sustainable, profitable fashion.

Centre head Dr Harry Clark has told farmers there are likely to be a combination of relatively small changes that will help them reduce gas losses in coming years, while prospects are positive in the medium term for methane inhibitors, and longer term for vaccines.

But   if  NZ   doesn’t  want to   lose   its  role  as a  world  leader in   food production it  needs  to  be  an  early  adopter  of   GE  research,  with its own laboratories  working  in  the field,  not  just  to meet  carbon zero  targets, but to  expand  the output  of  food.  The world   will certainly  need   vast  new supplies of  food  if,  as  the climate change warriors  believe,  global warming  will destroy   traditional  crops  in  countries like India and China.


4 thoughts on “Culling our cows isn’t the only way to reduce emissions – but greenies shy from the GE option

  1. I used to believe that GE had no place in New Zealand’s “clean green” reputation, but the science seems to have proved itself over the last 25 years. If the Chief Scientist says it would be safe to use, and public opinion has relaxed, then the Greens are just holding the country to ransom by refusing to even review the policy or investigate possibilities. The government should at the very least consider this seriously to make a significant difference in carbon emissions while reinforcing international views of NZ agriculture as a clean, sustainable and progressive sector.


  2. How do the Greenies think we are going to pay for all of their social programs? Technology is the only way to solve the green house gas issue. We can’t all ride bikes or go back to horse and carts.


  3. What an absurd little country when scientific advances important for this country’s wellbeing can be blocked by ignorant ideologues.


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